Today was a grey, Pacific Northwest sort of day; the left-behinds of a storm that passed through last night. We got a good soaking: my rain bin, parked under a leak in the gutter, collected 25 gallons.
The ants are hard at work, building new communities all through my front and back yards. The red clay of the Piedmont is so hard it has already started to crack, but the ants are implacable: they drill right up through it, creating ant condo complexes and shopping malls with dozens of entrances and exits over a few square feet.
The seven willow oaks in the yard, all 30 years old and 65-70 feet tall, are leafing out. That vague greenish-yellow haze that envelopes them has given way to leaf buds, and pollen. Long strings of it, draped like Chinese lanterns from every branch. A walking allergy collection, I am in for it the next week or two:
I usually have some tasks in mind when I head out. I have two adjoining yards I work on- an acre in total, both of which sat, unattended except for mowing, for a very long time. My yard was neglected for a decade; the next door one, for about six years. Vines and creepers are everywhere, and up into the trees; another neighbor contributes to the disarray by neglecting what he has planted in the past, while fussing over new trees he planted last fall. From him we get lots of flowering weeds whose seed bow in the wind over to us; I have spent the last week separating his grape vines from two of my neighbor's border trees; the vines were up 20-25 feet into them, firmly attached by their little aerial rootlets. The neighbor may have once had some wire to support them but it has long since given way to the tangle that follows long inattention, and the two trees were so much more attractive a prospect for the vines.
Today, however, Task 1 was Dealing With Dandelions. I am the ISIL of dandelions: today I beheaded 356. I find the best time to tackle them is when the flowers first come out; their brilliant yellow is an easy target. I walk around the yard snapping them up and, every fifty or so being a handful, dump them next to Mother Compost, the first of my my three piles (when you have seven willow oaks and a quarter-acre wooded lot next door, you need three piles). Mother Compost is the first and farthest along, about nine months old, and decaying nicely.
Next up? The potato patch. I discovered, years ago, potatoes are ridiculously easy to grow. Cut them up, bury them, and when the above-ground greenery dies back, dig them up. In the depths of this dreadful '14-'15 winter, grasping at some hope of warmth again, I let some smaller russets sprout on a pantry shelf, put them out a month or so ago to harden, and today I cleared a small bed against the back of the house, one that gets sun nearly all day. In went a row of six potato cuttings, and an equal of garlics cloves I let sprout in the pantry. Part of me worries, without articulable reason, I have waited too long and the spuds and garlic have gone off. If that is the case, I will get some new ones and start over, for a fine end of summer crop.
"Spring is over so fast," my across the street neighbor, Mildred, remarked the other day. We both wish the colors would last longer. Maybe we have a heightened sense of the passage of time: we have 145 years between us, and as we slow down, time speeds up. Today I thought I'd get some snaps for the diary, and maybe print a few out for Mildred and me to gaze upon next December, when the darkness seems never-ending and the TV weathermen exult over the prospects of ice storms.
So I wandered around the neighborhood, camera in one hand, shears in the other. I keep a vase of flowers in my windowless bathroom; the red camellias I have enjoyed the last few weeks have run their course and it was time for a new arrangement.
There was much to choose from. Mildred's azaleas are coming out; as are my neighbor Cindy's; I took a couple of snips of the reds, and some red and pink camellias for the foliage and contrast. I stopped to pull some vines out of the pink camellia, and, while rooting around in it to find the big vine and behead it, I came across a fine example of the nesting art, complete with a fringe of moss around the remarkably ovalized straw inside.
I walked over to snap Mildred's dogwood. It is a fine specimen, one that has grown roundly in its location; getting sun all day.
In the foreground, the lilac and the Chinese rose have seen their best this spring, but a week ago, ya shoulda been here.
I only have one dogwood, on the edge of the wooded lot next door. The trees there have grown densely over time, crowding each other out and either growing tall and spindly before falling victim to storm winds, or sideways, outward to try and get the sunlight. The dogwood is a one-sided tree, stretching out over the driveway to get some afternoon light. The long, narrow lot behind it, dense with foliage, cuts out nearly all the morning sun.
A visit to Mildred's yard is a visit with Mildred, and we celebrated the ongoing gifts her husband left in the plantings over the thirty years they shared in that yard. Some violets are peeking out in their across-the-street narrow, wooded, next door lot, sort of cross-street nature corridor with ours.
We strolled over to look at William's azaleas, scattered through the woods. Planting them in wooded settings is an inspired choice. When St. Andrews University, my alma mater, was being built in the late 1950s, a donor gave them truckloads of azaleas: so many, they couldn't find places for all of them around the new buildings and so started putting them out in the pine groves that meandered through and round the campus. By the time I arrived, fifteen years later, hiking the wooded areas meant coming across sudden explosions of color, ten feet or more tall. The only thing to rival it is the corridors of mountain laurel one hikes through on the North Carolina portions of the Appalachian Trail.
We chatted about the usual things- the weather, the curse of the spiky balls the gums across the street produce in such excess, the tendency of the neighbors in the newer subdivision down the street to take the speed limit as a suggestion- when suddenly Mildred cried, "Ah!" I looked over and there were two vivid- and hardly common- common yellowthroats perched at her birdbath.
And if that wasn't enough! Three eastern bluebirds dropped in as the yellowthroats- thirst slaked, flashed off.
The bluebirds seem to like the neighborhood; I first saw them March 26, after a heavy rain forced up a back yard of gasping worms. But the yellowthroats are a first, and push my neighborhood bird list up to sixteen.
I came home and, inside, got the vase refilled for some wake-me-up color blast tomorrow morning:
Yes, I read Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War in the bathroom.
Working solo, at home, is a pretty solitary business, and there's times I wish for some company to tell what I do all day, and ask if it makes any sense. But bookselling is, in many respects, a pretty damned boring proposition, especially if one is not drawn to the magical search- almost never fulfilled- for all thirteen errors that make a true first printing of The Great Gatsby. Or, in more contemporary terms, to try and get someone else's opinion of where I ought to put more social media effort: Twitter, where I have vastly more followers; or Facebook, where I have far fewer, but those I have are more communicative and visit my business's website more often. For most of my friends, these are MIRB talks- My Eyes Roll Back.
So it's nice to get outside, when I can. I am six weeks into the book business, and it is slow going building the kind of market reach that will prompt one or two people to buy a book per month: once I hit that modest goal, I won't worry as much about the moths in my wallet and the echo when my bank's teller opens my account balance. Getting out clears my mind from the hyper-rational side telling me- pretty persuasively- why the "it will all work out" side is nothing but codswallop.
Getting out- having the time, during daylight- to do stuff, is a wonderful gift, and has the added advantage of being free and requiring little travel. For the first time since I was, maybe, fifteen? I have the time to pay attention to what is going on around me. I can watch bulbs come up from the ground, note the appearance of another species of bird in my yard, talk with my neighbors. In her wonderful book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes of a women's Bible Study group in the Presbyterian Church of her tiny, windblown Dakotas town:
When I dared to speak, I said that my favorite passage in the chapter had always been Mark 4:27, because it speaks so eloquently of an ordinary miracle that the farmer "should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how." That seems to apply to so much that I do, I said, commitments that I make when I have no idea what I'm getting into, and somehow they grow into something important, before I know it. My marriage, for instance, I said, and the women laughed, knowingly. It also reminded me, I told them, how mysterious are so many of the things that we take for granted. We know how to plow a field, and how to seed it. But germination and growth are hidden from us, beyond our control. All we can do is wait, and hope, and see. "Only last Saturday, a woman interrupted, "at the Lutheran fall bazaar. The place mat was real different. I saved mine." She drew it from her purse and unfolded it. There was a picture of a wheat field and a quote from Martin Luther: "If you could understand a single grain of wheat you would die of wonder."